“Outside of the works of Sophocles and Shakespeare, I can’t think of a more dizzying fall from grace”: Writer-director John O’Connor discusses The Trials of Oscar Wilde
The Trials of Oscar Wilde is on its UK tour. The Upcoming interviewed writer-director John O’Connor, who co-authored the play with Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland. The playwright revealed his fascination with protagonists in crisis, which perhaps explains the director’s gravitation towards the titular subject. Like many of us, O’Connor had never encountered Wilde as anything other than the literary figure. Yet, in his new play, the dramatist tracks the prolific writer’s fall from grace and presents the man as he was: flawed and contrary and worthy of dramatic exploration.
What initially drew you to Oscar Wilde as a subject?
Coming from an Irish background, I had always been interested in Wilde and was lucky enough to act in and direct some of his plays. This production came about because I realised I had a lot of unanswered questions about his fall and the trials of 1895. How did he get himself into that mess? Was he persecuted or the author of his own downfall? And what did he say in the dock at the Old Bailey? There is always something fascinating about a protagonist in crisis. If that man happens to be the wittiest man who ever lived, then there should be all the elements of a great play.
How did your collaboration with Merlin Holland begin?
I tried to track down the transcripts of the trials but they had all been “lost” (or possibly suppressed) by the government of the time. That was until the transcript of the libel trial was discovered by Merlin after more than 100 years and published in his book Irish Peacock and Scarlett Marquess. I wrote to him about the possibility of turning the transcript into a production and we got talking. He also thought the story of Wilde’s trials would make for a wonderful play and generously offered his time not only to answer my questions but to co-write the script with me.
How did you develop your creative partnership in writing this play?
Merlin has a great eye for historical accuracy whereas I’m interested in storytelling. This might have become an area for conflict but I found the history totally absorbing and Merlin was intrigued by the mechanics of theatre so we both had a wonderful time collaborating together. Between us, we came up with a form of historical verbatim theatre that we think captures the spirit of Oscar Wilde in all his paradoxical complexity and wit.
You use elements of verbatim theatre, shaping scenes from real court documents. What was the process of research for the play?
The main challenge was not what to include but what to take out. The libel transcript runs to 8,000 words and Wilde’s testimony is the closest thing we have to a recording of his voice. However, we had a duty to tell the story in an efficient and entertaining way so we had to be fairly brutal in cutting out some of Wilde’s more brilliant flights of fancy that don’t advance the narrative.
Wherever possible, we have used the original words spoken in court. The first half deals with the dramatic events of the libel trial – Wilde vs Queensberry – as Oscar goes from Prosecutor to Prosecuted in the space of three devastating days. The second half carefully reconstructs the criminal trials – “Regina vs Wilde” – from newspaper reports, eyewitness accounts and documentary evidence.
How did the family connection with Holland inform that process?
Merlin was scrupulously objective in telling the story. There is absolutely no attempt to excuse Wilde’s behaviour or to paint him in an overtly sympathetic light. It’s a real “warts and all” depiction of Oscar, which makes it a lot more interesting for the audience. The one area where his connection gave real insight was in conveying the impact of Wilde’s downfall on his family. Constance and the children (Cyril and Vyvyan) were sent abroad, their home (and even the children’s toys) were auctioned off in the bankruptcy sale and they were forced to change their name to Holland. From leading a happy, settled home life in London, the boys were shuttled around Europe like outcasts and their mother died just three years later. They were not allowed to see their father again and were told he was dead. Wilde tried to get in touch with them but was prevented from doing so by their guardians before his premature death at the age of 46 in 1900. What happened to Wilde was tragic in many ways but what happened to his wife and children was perhaps even worse.
Was it a struggle to stay faithful to the source material when shaping the play?
No, it was actually surprisingly easy. All the elements of tragedy were there already and, in many ways, the story wrote itself. The triumphant opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest was 14th February 1895 and the zenith of Oscar Wilde’s career. Yet, within 100 days he had been through three trials and was sentenced to two years hard labour. Outside of the works of Sophocles and Shakespeare, I can’t think of a more dizzying fall from grace and yet this story is completely true. Many real events are better than anything we could have come up with. For example, when Wilde was finally convicted, The Importance of Being Earnest was forced to close and was replaced by a play called The Triumph of the Philistines. A more ironic comment on the trials, it would be impossible to invent!
You talk about showing audiences the real Oscar Wilde for the first time. Was that always the main intention?
No, the original intention was to give an honest account of what happened during the so-called “trials of the century”. In doing that, Wilde naturally takes centre stage and manages to destroy himself in the process. We tend to think of him as being perfectly assured and in total control of language. However, during the trials, we can hear his actual words spoken under pressure and up against the ropes. He stumbles, evades and occasionally descends into incoherence. He is by turns arrogant, playful, capricious, naïve, disarmingly frank and frequently very amusing. Perhaps the Old Bailey was not the best place to be funny! Certainly, this is a Wilde I had never encountered before and it’s intriguing to experience him as a fully rounded, flawed and contrary human being.
What led to your decision to place the audience in the ringside seat of the court?
The lawyers for the defence and prosecution address the jury throughout so it made perfect sense for that to be a direct address to the audience. It places them right in the heart of the action and allows them to weigh up for themselves the evidence. The show raises important questions in the audience’s minds about individual liberty, sexual exploitation and the role of the establishment in bringing Wilde down. They can judge for themselves if Oscar is hero or villain, saint or sinner, victim or fool. As he said himself, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple”.
How did Wilde’s own theatre work influence your process and the staging of the play?
The Trials of Oscar Wilde begins with the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest at the St James’s Theatre and it’s fascinating to read the play in light of the trials and the dark shadows surrounding Wilde at the time. Jack’s living of two lives (in town and in the country) surely mirrors the author’s dual identity as outwardly respectable married man and secret lover of men. We have used moments from Earnest in the play that directly seem to comment on the action in court. For example, Earnest begins with a long discussion about a cigarette case with a suspicious inscription. Many of the key pieces of evidence presented against Wilde in court were cigarette cases that he had had inscribed and given to young men. “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life” he said in the preface to Dorian Gray, and in his case, it is certainly true.
You make clear what happened to Wilde in 1895 is happening to LGBTQIA+ all over the world today. How important is it for you to acknowledge and reflect on our contemporary social context when working with historical subject matter? Can history ever just be history?
It is vitally important to make the link between then and now or it just becomes a museum piece of interest only to historians. Wilde’s work is studied on the national curriculum by millions of students but the story of his trial and conviction is still relatively unknown. It is a stain on the justice system of this country and set back the course of equal rights by 50 years. While a lot has changed in the UK since Wilde’s conviction in 1895, he was only officially pardoned in 2017 and his story feels incredibly relevant. The charity Stonewall estimates that there are 72 countries in the world where it is illegal to be gay and in eight of those it is punishable by death. Also, writers and artists who are thorns in the sides of the establishment are routinely arrested, tortured and even killed in countries such as Russia, China and Turkey so what happened to Wilde (and worse) is still happening today.
It’s not just in the context of civil rights that Wilde speaks to us today. He was an Irishman who spoke fluent French, as well as German, Greek and Italian. He was constantly looking to the continent for inspiration and new ideas. At a time when we are about to shut the door on cultural exchange with our European neighbours via the folly of Brexit, his words feel especially topical and comforting: “To disagree with three-fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first elements of sanity, one of the deepest consolations in all moments of spiritual doubt.”
Photo: David Bartholemew
The Trials of Oscar Wilde is at Greenwich Theatre from 2nd until 6th April 2019. For more information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.